(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois is the inspiring story of a foremost African American intellectual and civil rights leader of the twentieth century. He discusses his individual struggles and accomplishments, as well as his major ideas dedicated to promoting racial equality for Africans and African Americans. Moving from the reconstruction era after the U.S. Civil War, through World Wars I and II, to the height of the Cold War and the atomic age, Du Bois’ personal reflections provide a critical, panoramic sweep of American social history. Du Bois did not simply observe the American scene; he altered it as a leader of African Americans in the American Civil Rights movement.

The chronological structure of The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois begins with five chapters on his travels to Europe, the Soviet Union, and China. After these travels, Du Bois announces the crowning ideological decision of his life: his conversion to communism. The remainder of The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois answers the question: How did Du Bois arrive at this crucial decision in the last years of his life? Du Bois chronicles his life patterns of childhood, education, work for civil rights, travel, friendships, and writings. This information is written in such a way that it explains his decision to adopt communism as his political worldview.

Perhaps the most fascinating section of the book is Du Bois’ account of his trial and subsequent acquittal in 1950 and 1951 for alleged failure to register as an agent of a foreign government, a sobering story of public corruption. His fundamental faith in American institutions, already strained by racism, was destroyed. He moved to Ghana and threw his tremendous energies into that nation as it shed its colonial experience.

The autobiography is subtitled as a soliloquy, but this categorization reflects the political realities of 1960 more than the specific literary form of speaking to oneself. At the time, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union made communism an abhorrent choice to many Americans. The autobiography finally appeared in English in 1968, at a publishing house known for its communist writings. The autobiography is the least read of Du Bois’ autobiographies, although it is an engaging exposition in which Du Bois shows his continuing growth and faith in human nature during his tenth decade.